National Microbiology Lab worker isolating after contact with chickens exposed to coronavirus

By | April 3, 2020

A lab worker at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg is in self-isolation after having unprotected contact with chickens that had been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.

The incident took place the morning of March 28, and the community liaison committee to the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health was notified Friday morning by email, according to committee co-chair Allan Wise.

An employee of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency entered an animal cubicle housing chickens that had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 — the scientific name for the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory illness COVID-19. 

The employee was not wearing appropriate protective equipment, Wise told CBC News.

The cubicle was designed for a study on whether chickens could become infected. Samples collected from the chickens on the day of the potential exposure tested negative, Wise said.

The employee and the lab engaged the appropriate response protocol, including showering out of the animal cubicle.

The employee is now undergoing 14-day self-monitoring for symptoms in isolation at home, and is in contact with an on-call external infectious disease physician.

Under the lab’s incident reporting system, the community liaison committee was notified, although no public notice was issued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“This incident was not elevated to the level of ‘public notification’ in accordance with the approved process and guidelines as the chickens tested negative,” Wise said.

The microbiology lab is now reviewing the incident to see if it should improve any of its safety procedures.

Major role in COVID-19 testing

The Level 4 virology facility is equipped to work with the most serious and deadly human and animal diseases. 

That makes the Arlington Street lab one of only a handful in North America capable of handling pathogens requiring the highest level of containment, such as Ebola.

The lab is playing a major role in confirming positive COVID-19 test results coming from across Canada.

The lab’s community liaison committee was established in 2000 and is made up of volunteer residents, scientists, health-care and agriculture professionals and educators, in response to public concerns about the safety and containment procedures. It is meant to be arms-length from the Public Health Agency of Canada, which is responsible for the lab.

The lab was also at the centre of baseless conspiracy theories claiming a connection between two scientists with ties to China who worked there and the coronavirus.

Dr. Xiangguo Qiu, her husband Keding Cheng were escorted from the lab last July amid an RCMP investigation into what’s being described as a possible “policy breach.” They haven’t been allowed to return to the lab since then.

Xiangguo Qiu, her biologist husband and her students have not returned to work at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, after being escorted out in July. The RCMP is still investigating a possible ‘policy breach’ reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada. (CBC)

The Public Health Agency of Canada also will not provide any updates on the status of the two scientists or their work.

However, both the RCMP and the public health agency have said there is no connection between the lab, the two scientists and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is misinformation and there is no factual basis for claims being made on social media,” Eric Morrissette, chief of media relations for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada said in January, in response to conspiracy theories online.

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